Viral outbreak and “Peace Officers” bring focus back on cruise lines


A highly contagious virus sickened more than 100 passengers on a cruise ship that returned to San Diego, California, from a 10-day trip to Mexico.

Passengers on the Ryndam first showed signs of the norovirus six days into the trip, said Erik Elvejord, a spokesman for Holland America Line. The virus, which causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and lasts 24 to 48 hours, sickened 104 passengers and six crew members. The ship was carrying 1,226 passengers and 556 crew members. It visited several ports in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez after leaving San Diego on February 15.

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This is the fourth suspected norovirus outbreak on the Ryndam since early last year. Holland America, based in Seattle, has not identified the source of the latest outbreak.

The ship left San Diego late on Monday afternoon on another 10-day cruise on Mexico’s Pacific coast after a crew spent the day disinfecting passenger and crew areas.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the United States are seeking to make it mandatory for cruise ships sailing from California’s ports to have a peace officer on board.

If the bill is passed, California would have the most stringent state regulations on the industry, which has come under scrutiny after several high-profile cases of missing people, passengers overboard and sexual assault in recent years.

“We’ve got air marshals on planes with a couple hundred passengers, but we’ve got no one on board cruise ships with 10 times the number of passengers,” says Democrat state senator Joe Simitian, the bill’s author.

The peace officers, whose salaries would be funded by a US$1 (HK$7.80)- a-day passenger fee, also would serve as licensed marine engineers to monitor compliance with environmental laws.

Cruise ships hire their own security officers, but lawmakers and law- enforcement officials are increasingly questioning whether that is sufficient. “On-board security works for the cruise line – not for the passengers or the public,” Simitian says. “There’s an inherent conflict of interest between the public relations goals of the employer and the public-safety requirements of the passenger.”

California’s US$1.9 billion cruise industry, with ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, represents about 14 percent of US embarkations. In all, more than 1.2 million passengers embarked in California in 2006.